The Jewish Algorithm

Rabbi Sacks’ remarks at the 2017 Olami Summit

At the 2017 Olami Summit in London, together with Naftali Bennett, Israel’s Minister for Diaspora Affairs, Rabbi Sacks had the honour of addressing over 1400 young Jewish leaders from over 100 organisations based in more than 20 countries around the world on the greatness of being Jewish. He spoke to them about what Judaism means to him, and why it should mean a great deal to them.

This video contains Hebrew subtitles.

Friends, what an incredible privilege it is to be in this extraordinary gathering. I always thought there was no cure for the British cold, but I’ve just discovered it is called Jewish warmth. Friends, you are terrific. Two Jews sit together, they bring the Shechinah You have brought something world-changing here and from here go out and inspire the world.

Friends, let me thank on your behalf Rabbi Rafi Butler, President of Olami, CEO rabbi Menachem Deutsch. Let me thank our wonderful benefactors of Olami, Mr. Aaron Wolfson and Elie Horn, incredible people. Special thank you to Rabbi Naftali Schiff, JRoots and the team of the Jewish Futures Trust who’ve organised this whole thing and to K’vod Ha’Sar, Naftali Bennett who has come especially for this weekend, and we thank Mrs. Bennett for allowing you out, and this is terrific.

Friends, you’re an amazing group and I have to tell you something. I was asking myself why did Hashem organised for the Olami, Olam Ha’Yehudi, to come here to London to the banks of the Thames? And I suddenly realised it must be because not far from here also on the banks of the Thames the one guy wasn’t Jewish who I really wish had been, William Shakespeare, he was here. So I want to quote you a line from Shakespeare that I found life-changing. It comes from Twelfth Night and it goes to the very heart of what it is to be a Jew. He says, “Some are born great. Some achieve greatness. But some have greatness thrust upon them.” I realised of a pretty early age I wasn’t born great and I wasn’t going to achieve greatness, but at a certain point in my life at university I suddenly realised that if you’re a Jew you have greatness thrust upon you.

How so? How so? Because we are the heirs of the descendants of the most influential man who ever lived, Avraham Avinu, claimed today as the ancestor in faith of 2.4 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims and a few of us most of whom are here tonight. Here is a man who wore no crown, ruled no Emperor, commanded no great army, performed no miracles and delivered no prophecies, but who changed the world by his faithful willingness to follow the call of God. We are the descendants of Moshe Rabbeinu whom Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the inspiration of the French Revolution, called the greatest lawgiver in the history of humankind.

I have to tell you. I sit today in the House of Lords, hard to get a minyan as anyone who’s seen my speeches will realise. People sometimes ask me which is better, the House of Lords or ‘the house of the Lord’ (shul). I say, “I always prefer shul to the House of Lords because in shul only the rabbi gives a sermon. In the House of Lords everyone gives a sermon.” I have to tell you in the House of Lords there’s a magnificent chamber used for the committee work called the Moses Chamber. And when my predecessor, the late rabbi, Chief Rabbi Lord Jakobovits was introduced to the House of Lords, they said to him, “Congratulations. You’re the first rabbi in the House of Lords.” He pointed to the great big painting that covers the whole wall of Moshe Rabbeinu bringing down the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai and said, “No, he was the first. I’m just the second.”

We are the descendants of David HaMelech, not merely Israel’s greatest king but the greatest religious poet in all of history. We are the heirs of the prophets, the world’s first social critics, the first people to speak truth to power. When Martin Luther King at Washington at Lincoln Memorial gave his “I have a dream” speech, at the climax of the speech who does he quote but two pesukim word-for-word from Isaiah, from the haftarah of Shabbat Nachamu.

We are their heirs, and not only them, but all the way through history we have innovated, you name it, in any discipline, in physics, science, sociology, Durkheim, Levy, Strauss in anthropology. Jews invented Hollywood. Jews invented psychoanalysis. Apart from Jung all the psychoanalysts were Jewish, but then I always say, if you’re not Jewish, who needs psychoanalysis anyway. All the great psychotherapists or most of them, Viktor Frankl, Aaron Beck co-founder of cognitive behavioural therapy, Martin Seligman. 36% of Nobel prizes in economics including this one, the greatest music from Arnold Schoenberg to the greatest poets in pop music, the late Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, all the way to Sergey Brin of Google and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, and the world’s greatest technological invention ever it’s called Waze, alias Google Maps. Do you know how many marriages Waze have saved? Do you know how many marriages fell apart because he said to her, “Why didn’t you look up the map,” and she said to him, “Why didn’t you ask for directions?” Waze has brought Shalom Bayit to the world.

I tell you something. Jews didn’t innovate once. They innovate in every single generation. And even though some of those figures were not particularly religious, every one of them maintained that essential Jewish idea that you change the world not by the idea of power but by the power of ideas, and that’s what Judaism is. We are the people whose heroes are teachers, whose citadels are houses of study, and whose passion is learning and the life of the mind. And here is the problem. You see, this is why every one of you matters, because today there are keneina hora 13 or so million Jews. It’s a handful. It’s not the problem. The problem is that wherever you look around the world between one and two and two and three young Jews is walking away from Judaism, and that hurts.

I tell you why it hurts. Jews have been around a long time. We’ve been around twice as long as Christianity, three times as long as Islam. I remember when I was Chief Rabbi, I used to, part of the British Commonwealth used to be Hong Kong until we had to give it back to the Chinese. When I went there under Chinese rule I had a meeting with the Beijing appointee of Hong Kong, Mr. Tung Chee-hwa, the first governor, Chinese governor of Hong Kong, a lovely man who loved and admired Judaism. He said, “Rabbi Sacks, we Chinese knew Jews have been around for a long time. We’ve been around 5,000 years. You’ve been around 6,000 years. What I always wanted to know is what did you do for the first thousand years before you had kosher Chinese takeaways?” I said, “Mr. Tung for the first thousand years we just complained about the food.”

And here it is. We have been around longer than almost any other nation. We have been scattered to every country in the world. We have known in those centuries every fate from the height of triumph to the depths of tragedy, and yet, never before in Jewish history ever have we had two things that we have simultaneously today, sovereignty and independence in Medinat Yisrael, and freedom and equality in the Diaspora. There were times when we had one, but we never had both before. And today when every single prayer that your bubbe and zeida, your grandparents and their grandparents ever prayed back to a hundred generations, every one of those prayers has been answered. And what are we doing? We’re walking away.

That is bad. That hurts. And that is why when I was a student I said, “I can’t be part of this. I’m going to get more Jewish, not less.” I had no intention of being a rabbi by the last thing in my mind, but I made the decision, I can’t be one of those who walks away. And if you make that same decision that you’re going to be more Jewish, not less, you will together change the course of Jewish history.

Now you know and I know that it isn’t easy to be Jewish. There are all those laws, all that learning, all those restraints, who you can marry, what you can eat, when you have to rest. But let me tell you something. Everything today, do you know this, this is why we have grandchildren because they’re the ones who explain it to me. He said everything today is an algorithm. What an algorithm is I haven’t got a clue. When I was young we had rhythm but we didn’t yet have the “algo”, so this I know, that without the algorithm you can have a little neighbourhood bookstore, you have the algorithm you become There were a thousand search engines before Google, but you find you’re a Larry Page and Sergey Brin and you find the right algorithm, you can change the world.

Long ago in a lonely desert at the foot of a mountain in Sinai God entrusted a people, a small, fractious, obstinate people with nothing particularly to distinguish them, but he gave them an algorithm. It was called Torah, and that algorithm turned them into the most remarkable, tenacious, fate-defying people the world has ever known. How it works I don’t know but that it works I do know. And you are about to embark on a future, every one of you has dreams and plans, and you’re about to enter a future in which nothing is predictable, the world is changing faster than ever before and it gets faster every year, and you will need certain strengths to come through and thrive and succeed.

Let me tell you from personal experience what that algorithm of Torah will do to your life. Number one, it will strengthen all your key relationships. No one has stronger marriages than religious Jews. No one has stronger sense of community than Jews. Nobody has the same sense of collective responsibility of every Jew all over the world, kol Yisrael aravim zeh bazeh. Shimon bar Yochai said, “When one Jew is injured, all Jews feel the pain.” Nobody has those relationships like we have. Believe me. You cannot get through life and find happiness and success on your own. All the studies show that your success and your happiness depend on the strength and quality of those relationships, and that is the first thing Judaism will do for you.

Number two, all success depends on habits of discipline and willpower. Halacha, Jewish law is the world’s greatest ongoing seminar in discipline and willpower. Try getting up for Shacharit every morning, every other challenge becomes easy.

Number three, if you want to avoid burnout mid-career you have to find and keep Shabbat, the world’s greatest seminar in work-life balance. A woman from Silicon Valley got in touch with me and said, “Rabbi Sacks, I’m worried all our children are addicted to smartphones. They’re ruining their social skills. They’re destroying their attention spans. They can’t concentrate anymore. So with my children we have decided as a family we’re going to have a screen free day once a week. No smartphones, no laptops, no iPads.” She said, “You’ll love what we’re calling it. We’re calling it Shabbat.” That is the power of Shabbat today. In Moses’ day freedom from the slavery to Pharaoh, today freedom from tyranny to social media and email.

Number four, happiness is a matter of gratitude with attitude. When you are, live as a Jew what are the first words you say every morning? Modeh Ani. You thank before you even think. You live a life that way and you will have a lifetime of satisfaction.

Number five, Judaism will keep your mind active for a lifetime because to be a Jew has to be a moment of life-long learning. I tell you something. Many years ago I was rushed … Oh, thank you. Thank you. Sorry, I’ve just had Siri raising an objection. Tosafot says otherwise apparently. Thank you Siri. I didn’t know you were Jewish as well, but there you are. I was rushed into hospital 20 years ago with a life-threatening condition I didn’t … You know, just rushed straight from my doctor almost immediately to hospital, had an operation, saved my life. I was just coming round from the anaesthetic and there’s a knock on my hospital door. It’s an 80-year-old Jew with a volume of Gemara under his arm saying, “Oh, I heard you were here Rabbi Sacks. I thought we could learn Gemara together.” I’m trying to die and he wants to learn Gemara. I tell you that will keep you learning and growing through a lifetime.

Number six, whatever you do in life you will need an internal moral code. We’ve seen in the past years, the past weeks how some of the greatest business people, how some of the greatest Hollywood producers can rachmanu litzlan end their career in shame. Why? Because they thought they could get away with it. You never can. You need the inner voice that says no. And that is what Judaism teaches you.

Number seven, for happiness, for success, for resilience you need a sense of identity, you need to know who you are, of what story you are a part. We are not some free-floating atom in space blown by every wind. To be a Jew is to be part of the greatest story on earth.

These seven things won’t make a small difference to your life, they will make all the difference to your life. They are all part of that remarkable algorithm that turned Jews into the most resilient, creative, transformative people the world has ever known. And yes, we may not be born great, we may not achieve greatness, but if we’re Jewish we have greatness thrust upon us. And yes, it’s hard to be a Jew, it needs effort of dedication and will, but it’s the hard things that make you strong, it’s the hard things that give you pride, it’s the hard things that make you feel most vividly alive.

Friends, I want to end with a little story, it’s a curious little story. Have any of you heard of a novelist called Dan Brown? Mr. Da Vinci Code? He’s just written a best-seller called Origin. Have you read it? It’s the current bestseller. I’m not going to do what IMDB call “a spoiler”, but I will tell you this. It’s about a revolutionary discovery about how life began, and he quotes by name a real figure, a brilliant young physicist at MIT called Jeremy England who has found a way of explaining how it happened, how life began. Dan Brown quotes another physicist, you’ll see this if you look up Jeremy England in Wikipedia as well, another great scientist of our age saying, “If England is right, he may be the next Charles Darwin.”

Now Dan Brown wants to prove from this that you don’t need to believe in God to explain the origin of life. Let me tell you what’s fascinating. The real Jeremy England, there really is one, responded to Dan Brown in an article in The Wall Street Journal just a few weeks ago saying, “Dan Brown, don’t use me to disprove God because I believe in God.” Jeremy England grew up as a secular Jew. 20 years of age he decided, no, I’m going to become a religious Jew. He lives today and practises and believes as an Orthodox Jew, and I have to tell you, I think that’s a moment of pure poetry. Why? Because one of the great events in the modern world was Charles Darwin discovered natural selection and lost his faith. Today the next Charles Darwin has made a discovery possibly as great as natural selection and he’s found faith, and he has found faith as a believing and practising Jew.

I think that’s a Kiddush Hashem, and I tell you that story to show how one decision like that can change your life and help in some way to change the world. He made that decision at your age, I made that decision at your age, and now you must make that decision. Change yourself and you begin to change your world. I promise you, years from now you will look back and say that was the best decision you ever made. Let us together take this unique moment of independence and sovereignty in Medinat Yisrael, of freedom and equality in the Diaspora, and let us really live proudly as Jews, true to our faith, a blessing to others regardless of their faith, and let us go and change the world together. Thank you.

Watch an edited, shorter video showing several highlights from the speech: